Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review - Mysteries - Drood by Dan Simmons

I was looking over my reviews last night and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t reviewed Drood. I read this wonderful book last year and just loved it, so I don’t know why I put off reviewing it.

Drood is narrated by Wilkie Collins, the 19th century author of those marvelous mysteries, The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale and others. Collins was also the friend, collaborator, and rival of the great Charles Dickens (Collins often spent holidays at Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’ home) and it’s around Dickens that this marvelous story revolves. In Collins’ own words, the novel will be:

[The] true story will be about Charles Dickens's final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man – if man he was – named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.”

The book opens during a pivotal moment in Dickens’ life, perhaps “the” pivotal moment – the June 9, 1865 Staplehurst train disaster. After encountering a gap in the rails, the first six of seven first-class coaches plunged down into the ravine below. The seventh coach, and the only one not to plummet off the rails, was the one carrying Charles Dickens, then fifty-three, and his young mistress, Ellen Ternan, as well as Ternan’s mother, who were all returning from France. Their carriage dangled over the edge of the bridge, but stayed aloft so that Dickens, Ternan, and Ternan’s mother escaped with no physical injuries, though what, if any, emotional trauma any of the three might have suffered remains unknown.

What is known is that Dickens, after climbing out of the carriage and assisting Miss Ternan and her mother (and carrying the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend with him), did what he could to help the wounded and the dying, of which there were many.

As Dickens made his way among the injured, Simmons, in the guise of Collins, tells us he met another man attempting to be of service to those who were suffering, a man who identified himself only as “Drood.” This man, Dickens tells Collins, was “cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale” and instead of a nose, he had “mere black slits opening into the grub-white face” as well as “small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart....” To make matters worse, he had three missing fingers, “dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp,” no eyelids, and he spoke in a spooky, sibilant whisper. He was dressed, incongruously, in a heavy black opera cape. Although Dickens at first thinks Drood’s intention was to help the injured and dying, just as Dickens, himself was doing, he later must reassess just who Drood is and what his mission at Staplehurst was all about.

It’s no secret that Charles Dickens lived only five years to the very day after the Staplehurst disaster. In Drood, Wilkie Collins explores those last five years of Dickens’ life and in particular, the way the great author came to be preoccupied by the man both knew as Drood.

Drood defies categorization. On one had, it’s a ghost story modeled after the great Victorian ghost stories, and Drood is certainly one the best villains in all of literature. On the other, it’s a Gothic tale of suspense, and if we had a third hand, that one would tell us that Drood is an exploration of the duality of good and evil that exists in all human beings.

While the book’s very finest set piece is no doubt Simmons’ chilling description of the Staplehurst disaster, that set piece must compete with the scenes that take place in “Undertown,” a dark, dank “city beneath the city” filled with terror, opium addicts, feral children, rats, and more, and the place where Drood, himself, reigns as Lord and Master. Dickens, of course, is pulled to “Undertown” by his search for the ever-mysterious Drood, while Collins, already a heavy laudanum addict due to “rheumatical gout,” finds that opium is the lure he can’t resist.

And that brings us to a very important question regarding this novel: Just how reliable is Wilkie Collins as a narrator? I think we have the right to ask. After all, the man often drinks enough laudanum to kill the proverbial horse. He has two mistresses, neither of whom he treats very well and neither of whom know about the other, and both want more than poor Mr. Collins is willing to give. And, to make matters even worse, Collins often sees a frightening creature with green skin and yellow, tusk-like teeth, who wants to do him great harm. Then there’s the doppelganger – the “Other Wilkie” – who comes unbidden and even writes parts of Collins’ books for him. To add insult to injury, the “Other Wilkie,” says our narrator, even writes better than the original. So, pardon us, Mr. Collins, if we find what you say less-than-trustworthy. But all this just adds to Drood’s charm – or its sense of horror. It all depends on the way you look at it.

Of course, Charles Dickens, himself, was less than a paragon of homely virtue. Though he was celebrated far and wide as a devoted family man, he seems to take great delight in the miseries he inflicts on his long-suffering wife, Catherine (who he’s thrown out of his home by the way), despite the fact that she gave him ten children. And there’s the matter of Dickens’ arrogance. He thoroughly enjoys being called “the Inimitable” and even insists that his own grandchildren, for goodness’ sake, call him “Venerables.” But, as Collins says, about midway through the book, “Even sane men — eminently sane men, public men — have dark sides which they show to no one.”

Despite all the goings-on in Drood, and there are plenty (even Queen Victoria makes a brief appearance), for me, the above sentence delineates the book’s theme – the duality of human nature. This is a theme that has been explored by many authors – Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Stevenson, Conrad, Twain, Poe, and yes, even Charles Dickens. But just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean Simmons shouldn’t tackle it today. Not if he has something fresh and original to bring to the table, and I think he does. Outwardly, Drood is about Dickens’ hunt for the ghoulish man he first encountered at Staplefield, but delve a little deeper into the book and you’ll find Drood is also about a middle-aged man coming to terms with the fact that hard as he tries, he still has to play second fiddle to another man he doesn’t think too highly of, a man who might not be worthy of occupying that “first chair” after all.

I found the story of Drood and Dickens and Collins highly entertaining, but what really kept me glued to the page was Simmons’ brilliant characterization of Wilkie Collins. If Collins fails to persuade as our narrator, he fully engages as a character. Drood clocks in at more than 700 pages, but those pages fly by. Collins, in the skillful hands of Simmons, is as much of a mesmerist as Drood – or Dickens – could ever hope to be. In fact, save for Melanie Fuller in Carrion Comfort, I think the drug-addicted, hallucinating, lying, jealous, simpering Wilkie Collins is Dan Simmons’ finest fictional creation. (Don’t get me wrong here, I love Wilkie Collins’ works, maybe more than Charles Dickens’.)

I know some readers who were disappointed in this book. I wasn’t one of them. I think too many people are comparing Drood to Simmons’ previous work, The Terror, and finding Drood coming up short. This is the fault of the reader, not Simmons. Comparing Drood to The Terror is like comparing apples and oranges. One book concerns Victorian London (and it captures the Victorian atmosphere perfectly) drug-addiction, and the competition between two authors, while the other is a fictionalization of the doomed Franklin expedition that left Britain for the Arctic in 1845. Both books are wonderful, but both are wonderful in their own right.

When all is said and done, Drood is a magnificent achievement. It’s a delicious way to while away a winter’s day (I read it last winter) and a wonderful exercise in misdirection. It’s a book that keeps the reader glued to the page and more than a little off-balance until the final sentence.


Recommended: If you like Victorian literature, especially mystery and suspense, you’ll probably love this book. It’s also recommended for those who have a great interest in Charles Dickens and/or Wilkie Collins. Be aware that some readers thought the book was overly long. I didn’t find it so.

Note: It’s interesting to note that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins collaborated on a play called “The Frozen Deep,” a fictionalized account of the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic. Dan Simmons wrote a novel of this expedition titled The Terror, which I also recommend highly. Simmons has said he didn’t follow The Terror with Drood as a natural progression, though. Instead, he says he’d planned on writing a book about Charles Dickens for some time, even before he conceived his idea for The Terror.